The thrill of competition is something people enjoy in many different ways and the theatre of science is our personal favorite!

On September 22 and 23, 2018, seven high school and collegiate geekStarter teams from across Alberta converged at the University of Calgary Foothills Campus to pitch their projects as part of geekStarter’s annual aGEM competition and workshop. Managed by MindFuel, the geekStarter program challenges student teams to work on solving real-world issues with new technologies, including synthetic biology and robotics.

While the competition and critique from experienced judges is not meant exclusively for student teams working in the field of synthetic biology, most use it as an opportunity to gain valuable feedback on the projects they also hope to present at the annual iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machines) Giant Jamboree competition in Boston, Massachusetts, October 25 to 29. Students working in the field of synthetic biology design and build new biological machines using standard DNA parts that encode basic biological functions, much the same way computers use code to build websites and program software.

“The geekStarter program here in Alberta is truly unique, offering high school and collegiate students the mentorship, guidance, support and resources to tackle complex, real-world challenges while experientially learning cutting-edge science and technology,” says Magda Pop, MindFuel’s geekStarter program manager. “The work these students are doing today may one day solve some of the growing challenges in our world, helping us achieve a better outlook for the future. But more than that, they are learning valuable teamwork, collaboration, leadership and entrepreneurship skills they’ll take with them throughout their lives.”

In total, seven teams took part in the 2018 aGEM event, presenting a range of highly-developed, impressive projects:

  • Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy SynBio team (Canmore): Building a cost-effective device for tagging and sorting out plastics at recycling facilities.
  • Notre Dame Colligate iGEM team (High River): Building a device for breaking down fatbergs that clog wastewater pipes.
  • Lethbridge High School iGEM team (Lethbridge): Developing a system for removing metal contaminants from wastewater.
  • University of Alberta iGEM team (Edmonton): Working on a treatment for a common parasitic disease in honeybees.
  • University of Calgary BioMod team (Calgary): Developing a fingerprinting technique using quantum dots.
  • University of Calgary iGEM team (Calgary): Developing a safer approach to gene therapy.
  • University of Lethbridge iGEM team (Lethbridge): Creating a toolkit for custom assembly of nano-scale vehicles for target delivery of molecules, e.g. a toxin against the Zebra mussel.

This year’s panel of expert judges included:

  • Dr. Jun Axup, Scientific Director and Partner, IndieBio (who participated via teleconference on Sept 23)
  • Dr. Terry Johnson, Associate Professor Bioengineering, UC Berkeley
  • Dr. Todd Kuiken, Senior Research Scholar, Genetic Engineering and Society Centre, NC State University
  • Julie Legault, CEO and Founder, Amino Labs
  • Dr. Justin Pahara, CSO, Amino Labs
  • Patrick Wu, Biotechnology Business Development Consultant

Terry Johnson, an Associate Professor in bioengineering at UC Berkeley has been participating in iGEM events since 2008 as a judge and attended aGEM for the first time this year. When asked about the biggest difference he notices between the two events Johnson said, “aGEM gives students an opportunity to talk to teams who are in different spaces right now, they’re all constructing their stories.”

When asked why she continues to return to geekStarter events – where she has served as a mentor and judge four times – Julie Legault praised the teams and their advisors, as well as the geekStarter program for providing the kind of resources that help students craft such professional presentations, saying “the quality of students is really astounding!”

We would like to thank all the teams and their advisors for taking part to showcase their inspiring work, and to the judges for sharing their expertise and mentorship with the 2018 aGEM participants. Best of luck to all those teams competing at iGEM! Stay tuned for more information on the next geekStarter entrepreneurialism workshop, coming up in Calgary on November 24.